Nick Saban vs. Jimbo Fisher: How does their feud stack up against the best SEC coach dustups?
It felt epic because it was epic.
Two of the 5 active head coaches with a ring got into a war of words that felt straight out of the WWE playbook. Nick Saban claimed that Jimbo Fisher “bought” its entire recruiting class, which prompted a press conference response unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory.
Fisher’s response to Saban included calling the Alabama coach “a narcissist” and “God.” Fisher mocked Saban’s claim that there was once parity on college football and added “when you’ve got all the advantages, it’s easy.”
On a Thursday afternoon in the middle of the May, the college football world got its popcorn and locked into a biblical battle of words. Saban then apologized on SiriusXM for singling out A&M during his response about the issues he has with the lack of structure in NIL. The day ended with a public reprimand from Greg Sankey. Two coaches on 8-figure deals were publicly reprimanded for calling each other out the way they did.
Chef’s kiss, SEC. You’ve done it again.
Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen SEC coaches go back and forth. After all, it just means more.
The question now is just how high the Saban-Fisher feud ranks compared to some that we’ve seen in the last 25 years.
Let’s dig into that:
Steve Spurrier vs. Phillip Fulmer
We’ve got to start with a pair of coaches who helped bring the SEC into the modern era. Florida and Tennessee to the SEC were like what those epic Bulls-Knicks series were to the NBA in the 1990s. It was excellent theater because not only was it an entertaining on-field product with the Fun’N’Gun offense vs. Fulmer’s high-powered pro-style offenses, it was also 2 coaches with drastically different personalities.
Spurrier jabbed, jabbed and jabbed some more. His famous “you can’t spell Citrus Bowl without U-T” still plays. Go back to when Florida won the title in 1996 and Tennessee lost to the Gators and in-state Memphis. This 2002 article from the Sun Sentinel illustrates that Spurrier couldn’t help himself:
Spurrier handed out a one-page spoof to his team that listed “Tennessee’s Goals.” Crossed out were entries that read “national champions,” “Southeastern Conference champions” and “state champions.” The only goal left was “Knox County champions.”
Fulmer was never one to go blow for blow with Spurrier. It wasn’t a 1-sided rivalry, though. Fulmer ending a 5-year losing streak against Florida en route to a national title in 1998 was an all-time moment, as was Tennessee beating Spurrier in his final game coaching the Gators in The Swamp as 18-points underdogs in 2001. It took the sting off to know that Spurrier and Fulmer actually become good friends over the years.
They were guest pickers together on College GameDay in 2016. When Fulmer was hired as Tennessee’s athletic director, Spurrier actually gave his formal rival a ringing endorsement.
Steve Spurrier, who reveled in beating Tennessee and also rubbing it in, said the Vols got it right in hiring Phillip Fulmer as AD. “He will do a super job. It seems like the Tennessee fan base is together now, and that’s what you have to have at any school to be successful.”
— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) August 8, 2018
“Everybody thinks Steve and I are bitter enemies, but we’re really good friends,” Fulmer said on The Saturday Down South Podcast in December. “I kid him all the time. I say, ‘You’re a good guy until somebody puts a microphone in front of you. Then you’re a bit of a prick.'”
Lane Kiffin vs. Urban Meyer
Continuing on the Florida-Tennessee theme, Kiffin and Meyer also felt like a 1-way street with the jabs. In a similar sense to this Fisher-Saban battle, Kiffin infamously called out Meyer’s recruiting of Nu’keese Richardson, and that the Florida coach called the former blue-chip recruit while he was visiting Tennessee. That led to Kiffin speaking about the matter at a Signing Day event before he coached his first game at Tennessee:
“I loved that Urban had to cheat, but still didn’t get him.”
Oh, young Kiffin. So brash.
The irony is that Meyer actually didn’t commit a recruiting violation by doing that, and Kiffin actually got publicly reprimanded by the late Mike Slive for his comments.
The duo only got one meeting against each other, which was a 23-13 Florida win. Kiffin did continue the rivalry by claiming during an ESPN appearance ahead of the 2009 SEC Championship that Alabama would beat Meyer’s Florida team because “Florida has better players but Alabama has better coaches.” Even though it was right, Kiffin later admitted that “it wasn’t smart to say.”
Fair. Also fair? This rivalry wasn’t really what it could’ve been because less than 2 years after that infamous Signing Day comment, both coaches left their respective jobs.
James Franklin vs. Todd Grantham
OK, so technically, this might not count because Grantham was only an assistant when he and Franklin got into a shouting match after Georgia and Vandy played in 2011. It was a bizarre postgame scuffle with what appeared to be an upset Grantham, who was believed to be standing up for Shawn Williams when Franklin approached him after the game.
See for yourself:
Franklin said afterward that “We just had a tough, emotional game and some things that were said that I didn’t think were appropriate. I went to find Coach (Mark) Richt and didn’t find him, so I found one of the assistant coaches, and it didn’t go well. We’re not going to sit back and take it from anyone.”
Regardless of what the actual basis of each of their arguments were, it’s not every day that we see opposing coaches nearly get into a physical altercation. Had punches flown instead of just words, this would have been an even more polarizing moment in college football history.
Unfortunately for this argument, the war of words essentially ended that night in 2011. Franklin joked the following year that he and Grantham vacationed together and drank Mai-Tais by the pool.
Bret Bielema vs. Gus Malzahn
Sometimes, a beef’s origins can be traced back to a contrast in styles. With Bielema and Malzahn, that was absolutely the case. The hurry-up offense vs. the physical, decide-it-in-the-trenches football. Malzahn was the trendy restaurant for foodies and Bielema was the local BBQ joint that had the same smoker since the 1960s.
Both joined the SEC as head coaches in 2013. Bielema spoke out against Malzahn’s no-huddle offense and that it was a player-safety issue if there wasn’t a rule to protect against it. Malzahn responded by saying that was “a joke,” to which Bielema said, “I’m not a comedian.”
He wasn’t. But if you didn’t know any better, you’d think he attempted his next anti-Malzahn move for some slow-developing bit.
In the middle of that first season, Bielema said that Auburn’s game film that was shared with the Razorbacks, “there are just some clips that haven’t, shall we say, the TV copy doesn’t match the film copy.” Bielema filed a formal complaint with the SEC, though that didn’t lead to anything.
It probably didn’t help that Bielema stumbled to a 3-9 season in Year 1 while Malzahn, an Arkansas high school coaching legend who was also considered a potential candidate for the opening, played for a national championship. But besides Bielema telling a crowd of Arkansas boosters in August 2015 that he “hated Auburn,” the war of words/contrast in styles didn’t culminate with anything more personal.
Eli Drinkwitz vs. Dan Mullen
History has already forgotten the brief period in time in which we had a beef with a couple of Air Jordan-wearing middle-aged guys who looked more like advanced algebra teachers than dueling coaches in the toughest conference in college football. Alas, it was memorable for some of us.
In 2020, Mullen stormed across the field and appeared to yell at the Mizzou sideline just before the end of the first half:
WATCH Dan Mullen GO AFTER the Missouri PLAYERS.
This brawl is 💯% Dan Mullen’s FAULT. You can go after refs or opposing coaches but you NEVER go after opposing players. @ClayTravis @finebaum @MrCFB @slmandel @BarrettSallee @SEC @CoachesHotSeat @Mansell247 pic.twitter.com/HFLGBlwW6V
— NE Georgia Recruits (@NE_GA_Recruits) November 1, 2020
After this happened:
- A) A brawl ensued
- B) Mullen pumped up the crowd going into the locker room
- C) Mullen wore a Darth Vader costume to his postgame press conference (it was Halloween after all)
- D) Mullen was fined $25,000
- E) All the above
It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”
At SEC Media Days the following year, Drinkwitz said about Florida’s matchup at Mizzou in mid-November that he was “praying for snow” and that “(Mullen) was gonna complain about everything anyway.”
Go figure that Drinkwitz upset Florida in overtime in 2021 not only to clinch bowl eligibility, but it also was Mullen’s last game at Florida. Just to twist the knife a bit more, Drinkwitz showed up at the postgame press conference with a lightsaber ready at the podium, just so that he could flip his hood up and say “may the force be with you.”
MIC DROP from #Mizzou football coach Eli Drinkwitz after beating Florida in OT! 😂
“May the force be with you.” pic.twitter.com/cVw9CcvXK0
— Andrew Kauffman (@A_Kauff) November 21, 2021
I argue that we needed more than 2 years of this rivalry. Drinkwitz took special satisfaction in trolling Mullen. It could’ve been fun to see 5-6 years of Drinkwitz needling Mullen at every chance.
Kevin Sumlin vs. Will Muschamp
Before they got their 8-figure buyouts, Sumlin and Muschamp didn’t exactly get along. That’s not just because Sumlin didn’t hire Muschamp to be his defensive coordinator after the 2014 season.
Go back to when Sumlin was hired at A&M in 2012. Ahead of the Gators’ first trip to A&M since it joined the SEC, Muschamp said in front of a group of Florida fans “you ever been to College Station? It’ll be the only time you go,” (H/T Brent Zwerneman). Sumlin then fired back by saying “(Muschamp) needs to worry about his own team.”
Sumlin might’ve had a point.
Muschamp got the better of A&M in that matchup in College Station in 2012, but it was Sumlin who had the better season with Johnny Manziel setting the football world ablaze. It was also Sumlin who got that new contract, unlike Muschamp, who got a pair of 1-year extensions but was ultimately fired at the end of Year 4.
When Muschamp was hired by South Carolina, he made a return trip to College Station. Sumlin took to the airwaves to remind the A&M faithful about Muschamp’s College Station jab a few years earlier.
Kevin Sumlin on radio show on Will Muschamp: We all know how much he loves College Station. We need to give him a College Station welcome
— Brent Zwerneman 📰 (@BrentZwerneman) September 26, 2017
Fun back and forth? Sure. All-time feud? Not so much.
But yeah, give me Saban vs. Jimbo above the rest
All of those other feuds felt relatively surface level. That is, fun trash talk and not much more. If they did get personal like Kiffin did with Meyer, it was a pretty 1-way street. Saban vs. Fisher, however, feels like a legitimate personal battle with 2 coaches who know each other extremely well and have won on the sport’s biggest stage.
Even in this internet age wherein we’re someone numb to viral moments, this still feels unique. This isn’t just 1 side eating punches. Fisher looked like he had done about 90 minutes of boxing before he reached the podium to address Saban’s comments. And by the way, that wasn’t the first time Fisher had to respond to getting called out by Saban for his recruiting.
This is unique because rarely is anybody even worthy of standing up to the greatest coach in the sport’s history. Fisher, to his credit, can do that. Even better, he’s been on Saban’s staff to know where the bodies are buried.
Er, “the way he operates.”
That thickens the plot in ways we rarely see at any level of sports. The fact that both of these programs are built to compete for titles and will see each other annually makes it even better.
That’s why this has all the makes of the best SEC coach feud of the modern era.